Frustration in Characters

Frustration is not an emotion.

I read a book about writing a while ago called Characters, Emotion, and Viewpoint, by Nancy Kress.  I thoroughly enjoyed it.  It reiterated a lot of the concepts in Orson Scott Card’s Characters and Viewpoint (that’s kind of obvious), but brought up many new topics.  For instance, the author claimed that frustration is the writer’s greatest tool.  She was right.  Frustration drives all character emotion, all through any story.  But it’s not an emotion.

Frustration is a state of being.  As things go wrong, one is frustrated– it basically means being thwarted or stopped.  By that definition, and the assumption that very little should go right for your main character, that character is frustrated almost constantly.  In try-fail cycles, they’re frustrated.  When a plot twist hits, they’re frustrated.  When they can’t win the argument, they’re frustrated.

Is that an emotion?  No.  We can associate plenty of emotions with frustration, however– that’s what Nancy Kress meant in her book.  Each and every character, she claims, will deal with frustration differently.  Some will become angry, some will become depressed.  All characters will have multiple reactions to frustration based on the type of frustration it is.  One time they might be derisive, another time crushed, based on the level of impact each frustration has.  But through it all, frustration is never an emotion.

There’s a process I’ve mentioned once or twice of assigning emotions to scenes as you write or revise– one scene sad, one scene anxious, one scene angry.  If frustration was considered an emotion, every scene could be labeled that way.  Personally, I see stereotypical frustration in a specific way, anger and disappointment mixing together.  If that’s what each scene carries, it’s going to be an emotionally monochromatic book.  Emotional monochrome makes the characters seem whiny.

But if each instance of frustration is considered differently, if the idea of frustration is discarded in favor of an overpowering type of frustration, the scene comes alive and the emotions begin to vary again.  The character is no longer whiny.  They might still be bummed about losing the annual Whack-a-Mole tournament, or itching for vengeance against their rival– but that in itself makes it more flavorful than a simple mix of anger and disappointment.  The story might function in the same way, but the characters and their emotions won’t.

Look at your characters.  Are they monochromatic?  Are they consistently frustrated in the same way?  If so, now is the time to break out the list of emotions.  Make them three-dimensional.  Make them conflicted.  Don’t treat frustration as an emotion– treat it as a starting point to a better blend of feelings.

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32 thoughts on “Frustration in Characters

  1. I was just about to say that I’m pretty sure my characters do fall into the issues of being monocromatic, but then I paused and realized something. Any time someone mentions a possible fault with writing, I nod and agree and say I have it, too. No matter what it is. I think I’m imagining flaws in my writing…and I can’t tell what’s real and what’s just in my head.

    That said, I should probably pull out the Emotion Thesaurus book that I have buried on my shelf somewhere and actually use it. If nothing else, I know one character in particular is monocromatic, because every chapter I write with him comes out almost identical in feel.

      1. Oh, no, no, no, you don’t have to stop on my account. I just need to keep myself in check. Hopefully it’ll be easier now that I realize what I’m doing.

  2. Even psychologically speaking, frustration is defined as the reaction to goal-blocking activities. It isn’t an emotion, you’re right.

    I know for a fact that my characters aren’t monochromatic, but now you’ve got me thinking about how they react to frustration. On the surface, none of them give into despair. All of them are soldiers and they’ve been through the worst possible situations. Mentally, they’re trained not to give up.

    However, I’m starting to notice little things. Vicky, the natural leader, doesn’t get fazed when her plans don’t work. However, if anything happens to her emotional well-being, she falls apart. When the love of her life dies (it was always an extremely unhealthy relationship, owing to her emotional instability) she becomes near-suicidal. Meanwhile, another character gets angry–REALLY angry–and makes brash decisions. Whereas I also have characters that step back and keep their calm, and those that give into their fears.

    Excellent post. I’ve learned something about them. Thanks!

      1. I think about them all the time! I wish I could *be* them. Do you ever feel that? I think everybody does.

      2. I don’t, actually. If I did feel that, I think I’d consider it a wish-fulfillment thing, which increases the likelihood of a Mary Sue. I’d rather keep a healthy distance: know my characters, but not wish I were them.

  3. This was an excellent post! Loved it.

    My character may be a little monochromatic now, but she is getting better. This is really her first novel so I need to work out the kinks.

  4. if you wanted to complicated you could say that frustration IS an emotion, except that it’s a different kind of emotion every time. *French laugh* 🙂

      1. …Yeah, perhaps. Sigh…

        I must’ve been tired or something when I wrote that comment. (I don’t need it bookmarked; all I have to type into my web address bar is “i” and it comes up.)

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